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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Local History

1825 - 1881



Moorhouse Family Plaque in Knottingley

The plaque acknowledging the life of
William Sefton Moorhouse

In Knottingley there was but one blue heritage plaque adorning the wall of the recently demolished 'Old Hall' once the home of the Moorhouse family. The plaque acknowledged the life of William Sefton Moorhouse, (1825-1881) a pioneer of New Zealand, and his achievement in being the brains behind the construction of the Lyttleton to Christchurch tunnel.

Born on 15th November 1825 in Knottingley and the son of William and Anne Moorhouse (nee Carter) he died September 15, 1881 in Wellington, New Zealand. He received a good education and then decided to go to sea, saying once in a speech that he had been second mate in a vessel that called at Hobart in 1843. He also recalled that he had sailed on his father’s coal ships. Then, Sir Samuel Martin, MP. for Pontefract and afterwards Baron of the Exchequer who had been assisted by William’s father in his election to Parliament, advised putting him into the legal profession. He accordingly entered the chambers of a prominent council in London and in 1849 was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, and for the next year or two he practised on the Northern Circuit.

With two younger brothers Thomas Carter and Benjamin Michael Moorhouse they sailed on 12 August 1851 in the ship Cornwall arriving at Lyttleton on December 10, 1851. The three brothers had entered into a partnership before leaving England to farm in New Zealand., but though they purchased land the prospects did not appear attractive. On 26 January 1852 he took the oath in the Supreme Court at Wellington and was admitted to the New Zealand bar, and as an attorney.

In 1853 William married his fiancée Jane Ann Collins who had sailed out from Gravesend on 16 September 1853 on the Northfleet, her first voyage. She was born 22 March 1824 at Maidstone in Kent, being educated for 5 years in France. She appears in the 1851 Census living at Marine Villa, Knottingley, as a salaried Governess for the younger sisters of William Sefton Moorhouse. Another passenger on the Northfleet later wrote “without waiting for a pilot we sailed straight into Wellington harbour and there was the ship Tory with her Blue Peter up ready to sail to Australia. Amongst our passengers was the wife and three children of the Tory’s captain and the fiancée of William Sefton Moorhouse. William had chartered the Tory to bring back stock from Australia, and was going over with the ship, but thanks to the quick passage Jane had come out faster than the letter announcing her change of plans.” They were married next day 15 December 1853 at 8 o’clock at St. Paul’s Church, Wellington and then set sail. His brothers had gone to the Australian diggings, and William feeling his responsibility for them persuaded his bride to go with him to Victoria. The brothers were engaged on the construction of the waterworks at Yan Yean, and the four lived in tents some distance away from the works. When the contract was finished they all returned to New Zealand residing first in Lyttleton and then in Christchurch. Mrs Moorhouse in her diaries catalogues the 10 different homes in which they lived during the first 14 years of married life.

He practised his profession as a Lawyer and for some time acted as editor of the Lyttleton Times and as a resident Magistrate. He also farmed and had many dealings in land and was always interested in horses, prize and stud stock of all classes. He was owner of a sailing brig Gratitude trading between N.Z. and Melbourne carrying produce for the Victorian gold miners. In a book published privately in 1901 Mrs M.L. Guthrie Hay gave this account: ‘Ebenezer Hay chartered the brig Gratitude from William Sefton Moorhouse sailing from Lyttleton for Melbourne on 26 September 1855 with 106 tons of potatoes, 700 bushels of oats, 2 tons of cheese and half a ton of butter. To reduce his risk, Mr Hay sold half the potatoes to Mr. Moorhouse, who was also a passenger on board. After a three week trip they found they were a month late to realise top prices, potatoes were fetching £14 a ton in place of £30 they had been selling for; other produce realised low prices resulting in a loss on the venture. For the return William Moorhouse went to Sydney where he purchased a cargo of horses while Mr Hay invested in sugar, tea, rice etc. They left Sydney in middle of December and after a long passage of 37 days arrived a few miles north of Lyttleton harbour. Another ship Surge arriving at the same time kept in shore to catch the morning wind reaching Lyttleton safely and reported the Gratitude a few miles off Lyttleton Heads. However, instead of staying inshore the Gratitude put to sea where she was caught in a South East gale and blown far to the north, eventually reaching Lyttleton on 14 February 1856 after a trip of 58 days. On arrival it was found they had been given up as lost, and Mrs Moorhouse had already donned the apparel of a widow. Rations were very low for the last three weeks and they had resorted to grilled horseflesh, and of the 27 horses shipped only three were landed, some being lost or thrown overboard.’

He was elected to Provincial Council of Canterbury in 1855, then after resignation of Mr J.E. Fitzgerald as Superintendent of Canterbury in 1857, William was elected with a large majority. He was re-elected in 1861, but resigned in February 1863. After acting in other capacities he was again elected Superintendent in May 1866, a position he held for two years.

During his tenure of office as Superintendent of Province of Canterbury, his policy was to improve communications and his tunnel scheme was considered incredibly daring and for a time did not receive much support. William had graduated through the tough school of the Merchant Navy and the goldfields and, although a qualified lawyer was rather better known for his skills with his fists than for his forensic gifts, but largely through his advocacy and perseverance, the tunnel, named after him ‘Moorhouse Tunnel’ was promoted and constructed to carry a single line railway from the Port of Lyttleton through the hills to the Canterbury Plains where Christchurch had been built. The first stone was laid at the north end by Mrs. Moorhouse on 29 September 1862, and it was formally opened by Superintendent Moorhouse on 29 June 1867. An English firm, Smith and Knight had undertaken the tunnel contract but abandoned the project when they met volcanic rock. Undeterred, Moorhouse immediately left for Australia and came back with a contract with the firm Holmes and Richardson who completed the work without further misadventure.

In 1862 he bought 100 acres of land in the Merivale district and built up an estate. When declared bankrupt in 1871 the sale adverts describe his property as the most complete dwelling in the province with many acres of land and some extremely fine horses. It was purchased by the Studholm family who were relatives. In the depths of bankruptcy he once told a friend that he had spent £10,000 in ‘buying popularity.’

He was appointed to the position of Secretary for Crown Lands and Registrar General of Lands under the Land Transfer Act of 1870, and moved from Christchurch to Wellington in 1871 where he practised as a lawyer. He was later returned as Member of Parliament in 1875 and again in 1879, and was also Mayor of Wellington in 1875.

After a long illness he died in Wellington on 15 September 1881, and was accorded a Public Funeral. His body was conveyed to Lyttleton in the Government steamer Stella and he was buried in the Churchyard at St. Peter’s, Riccarton, Christchurch.

Statue of William Moorhouse

The statue of William Sefton Moorhouse

On 22 November 1885, a bronze statue, erected by public subscription, was unveiled in the public gardens at Christchurch by the Governer, Sir Wm. D. Jervois. The work of an English sculptor, G. A. Lawson, it represents William Moorhouse seated and is mounted on a pedestal of blue stone, and cost about £1,000.

It is interesting to note that in July 1859 other family members joined the exodus, arriving aboard the ship Margaretha Roesner, they were Edward, Sarah Ann, Lucy Ellen Sykes and Mary, followed later by sister Elizabeth, who, although an invalid caused by a riding accident, kept house for William Sefton Moorhouse. Both Lucy Ellen and Sarah Ann prospered, marrying pioneering emigrants from England. A racehorse called Knottingley twice won the New Zealand Cup, and to this day there is a ‘Knottingley Park’ in New Zealand.

Another brother, William Septimus de Septimo Moorhouse went to Australia where two of his children were christened with names that included Knottingley, but that’s another story.


The sister of William Sefton Moorhouse, Sarah Ann moved to New Zealand in 1859. On 29 November 1869 she married William Barnard Rhodes at Merivale Church, Christchurch, and they resided in Wellington, it was at The Grange, Wadestown, Wellington she died on 2 January 1914. There were no children from the marriage, but William Barnard Rhodes had an illegitimate daughter by a Maori lady and she was Mary Ann Rhodes, born in 1852.

In the mid 1880s Sarah Ann made a return visit to her hometown Knottingley and presented to St. Botolph’s Church a font, pulpit and lectern in memory of her parents and sister.

In 1902 she was instrumental in placing the Wellington Nursing Guild on a sound financial basis, and was associated with the activities of the organisation of St. John of Jerusalem, then in 1906 was made Lady Grace of that order. At the time of the coronation in 1911 she was privately received by Queen Mary and explained to her the working of the Nursing Guild in Wellington.


Brother to Sarah Ann and William Sefton Moorhouse, Edward moved to New Zealand in 1859 and was sheep farming at Owhoaka and Murimutu on the North Island.

On 11 July 1883 at St. Paul's Pro-Cathedral, Wellington he married Mary Ann Rhodes, the illegitimate daughter of his brother in law. After their marriage they lived in England at Spratton Grange near Northampton and hunted with the Pytchley, Quorn and Badsworth hunts. Later they moved to the South of England and Edward died at Parnham House, Beaminster, Dorset on 27 November 1917 aged 82 years.

One of the children of this marriage was William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge then from an early age he devoted himself to fast cars then aeroplanes. Around 1906 he knocked down and killed a boy near the pier on Brighton beach when on a motor-bike race, charges of manslaughter against him were withdrawn.

In early aviation 1909/10, he was associated with Jas. Radley in mono-plane activities and manufacture at Huntingdon, and gained his pilots certificate in October 1911. He competed in ‘Daily Mail’ prize flights from London to Manchester and round England, and was first to show the applicability of aeroplanes to the carriage of parcel post by flying from Northampton to Hendon with parcels of boots. In August 1912 he was the first to cross the channel from Douai in France to Ashood in England with two passengers, one being his wife, in a Brequet biplane.

At the outbreak of war he volunteered for active service and was killed after having successfully dropped bombs on the railway station at Courtrai to halt a German advance. When gliding at a low level, so as to be able to report what damage he had done, he was shot in three places, but in spite of his plane being hit many times by bullets and shrapnel, he was able to return 35 miles to his base and made his report. He died of his wounds the next day 17 April 1915, aged 28 years.

For this action, Second Lieut. Moorhouse was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, being the first member of the Flying Corps to receive this honour. In 1990 this medal sold at auction for £126,500. [Telegraph 17 Sep 1990]

A portrait of him was painted in 1987? which I believe is in the R.N.Z.A.F. Museum at Wigram, and being of Maori descent he was erroneously shown to have a swarthy skin.

Ron Gosney

Also by Ron Gosney:

1951 Festival of Britain Celebrations
Glassmakers of Knottingley
Captain George Colverson
Christopher Rowbotham & Sons
Disasters at Sea


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